Babak Moini and his fiancé Rochelle Collis say they are like Captain and Tennille, the 70s husband-and-wife pop-star duo. They are definitely singing from the same song sheet when it comes to philanthropy. Between them, in the last 12 months they’ve given over $2 million to the FSHD Global Research Foundation and $1 million to MS Research Australia.
“Elation” is the word both use to describe the feeling of giving. Although Moini says, “To me, donating money is no different to investing in a business.” A former actuary whose multiple business ventures include Laser Clinics Australia, The Cosmetic Institute, Laser Aid and Skinstitut (he’s CEO of all four), he adds: “You look at a range of parameters – the most basic of which is risk and return, corporate governance, and how transparent and accountable they are.”
An event that inspired
Moini, 50, was captivated when he and Collis – who owns Laser Clinic Australia’s Bondi Junction franchise – attended FSHD Global’s Chocolate Ball last August and heard a presentation by the organisation’s Founder and Chair Bill Moss AO. A senior executive with Macquarie Group for 23 years, Moss himself has Facioscapulohumeral Dystrophy or FSHD, the most common form of muscular dystrophy affecting adults and children.
“Because of his background in banking, he understood business and ran the charity in accordance with his business principles,” says Moini, who was impressed that 100% of gifts to FSHD Global went to medical research and the ‘FSHD – Find the Cure’ app enabled supporters to track where their donations went.
So when Collis subsequently celebrated her 40th and asked guests to donate to FSHD Global in lieu of gifts, her “best friend” went a giant leap further. He pledged $1 million to FSHD Global (together they’ve subsequently given another $1 million) and he also popped the question.
Collis laughs that “the funny thing for me was I had no surprise when the big novelty cheque came out for $1 million, but when my jaw dropped was when he proposed!”
Moini says neither he nor Collis have been big givers to charity previously. But after he sold shares in two businesses to private equity, “We had an opportunity,” he says. “It felt uncomfortable having such a large sum in our bank account. We parted with it relatively quickly thereafter!”
MS Research Australia makes contact
In a newspaper article, Moini had also revealed his interest in research into multiple sclerosis (MS), which Collis’s elder sister has. When Matthew Miles, CEO of MS Research Australia, woke up the morning the story was published, his phone was beeping with voicemails and texts about the article, and before breakfast he had phoned Moini’s mobile.
“It was just one of those great conversations,” remembers Miles. “He was very open to hearing from me. He appeared to be very easy to talk to.”
Over nine months, they continued the dialogue in informal morning meetings over coffee. “I just felt I really needed to get to know Babak,” Miles says, “and to understand his motivations and drive. It was clear he wanted to make sure what we had to offer was aligned with what he wanted, and that I understood their vision.”
This May, Moini and Collis gave $1 million to MS Research Australia – the largest national not-for-profit organisation dedicated to funding and coordinating multiple sclerosis research in Australia . Among other things, the organisation has committed to quarterly updates and audits of its use of the money.
“He doesn’t like a huge amount of paperwork,” reveals Miles, “but there will be some really strong impact reporting which shows not only exactly how the funds were utilised but the impact it has had, what it has actually done for people with MS and the value-add to the knowledge about research or the treatment options.”
A simple life of impact
Moini and Collis say they don’t live for nice houses, cars and boats, but the simple things – time together and with Collis’s two sons (Moini has three children from a previous relationship), eating well, exercise and of course, trying to do some good.
They credit this in part to their “giving” families. Collis’s parents took in a distant relative and he was brought up as a son; Moini, whose family is Iranian, says his brother passionately supports refugees. Collis (who contributed an additional $50,000 to FSHD by holding an event in May, and is an ambassador for the organisation and for Kiss Goodbye to MS) also traces her grounded attitude and sense of reward from giving to her desire to help her sister.
Moini adds that a defining moment in his life was losing all his wealth at age 40 and discovering from this “lesson in humility” that money wasn’t the key to happiness.
However having an impact on other people’s lives is a major motivator for the couple, hence their focus on medical research.
Speaking of impact – for FSHD Global, the world’s largest non-government funder of FSHD, Moini’s and Collis’s millions “have basically doubled our revenue stream for funding research this year,” says Natalie Moss, who is Bill’s daughter and the Foundation’s Managing Director. “It will go towards improving Australian diagnostics, bridging the gap towards drug development and launching a world first human clinical trial building muscle strength in the body – with each dollar becoming a stepping stone towards finding a cure.”
Also amplifying the power of the gift to MS Research Australia and the second $1 million to FSHD Global is the fact both organisations undertook not to use the funds until they were matched dollar for dollar. “So $1 million becomes $2 million for each,” says Moini. “FSHD Global has achieved it and MS Research Australia is on the way.”
Revelling in the joy of giving
Natalie Moss observes that the gifts also had an impact on their givers. “It takes a very special person to donate the vast majority of their wealth,” she reflects, “whether it is a million or $50.”
The philanthropic pair speak of the emotional gift they received. “Babak and I have worked hard in our careers and in owning businesses, but nothing has been as fulfilling and as rewarding as giving this money away,” says Collis, “and having direct feedback from some of the community supported by the organisations. My Facebook page was inundated with messages from around the world of thanks and gratitude.” Meanwhile Moini has received fan mail from the FSHD community worldwide.
Dream to lead others to give
Their hope now is for their gifts to inspire others, which was behind their desire to go public. Moini says that since their largesse became known, from among their friends already “roughly 15, 20 people have donated amounts of up to $1,000.”
“At the crux, Babak is an entrepreneurial philanthropist and he is trying to shift the perspective on philanthropy,” says Moss. “He just wants people to choose something they are comfortable and connected with and make a commitment to trying to change the landscape of philanthropy in this country.”
When he is asked about their own further giving, Moini laughs that they are now broke. “As a percentage of assets it is huge for us both in absolute terms,” he reveals. But they are still aiming to make large donations annually.
Future gifts will be focused in a narrow field – a small number of charities and probably still medical research with “big impact” the aim, and if this can’t be achieved they’ll consider other methods of making a difference. No doubt they will find a way.
Liz Henderson is editor of Fundraising and Philanthropy magazine.